Thursday, April 16, 2015

A troubling minhag

I have heard reports of a troubling minhag this coming Shabbos [edit: the Shabbos immediately following Pesach], one with seeming pagan origins -- a minhag which has become widespread in recent years -- to bake or eat challah.

To explain, etymologically, to call the braided Shabbos bread bchallah is a bit confusing. Chazal referred to Challah, but as the portion which was removed from the dough and given as a present to the kohen. (See Bamidbar 15:20 -- maybe it refers Biblically to a type of bread itself, as Philologos wrote.) It is only some time later (in a 15th century German work) that the Shabbos bread itself was called "Challah". (See also here for Otzar Ta'amei Haminhagim's explanation.)

To cite Menachem Mendel, who cites others:
I mentioned this to my colleague Rabbi Jill Hammer, and she suggested that I look into the connection between ḥallah and goddess worship. Not really knowing what to expect, I found the following in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (p. 482):
The braided bread loaves of Germanic tradition were invented by the women of Teutonic tribes, who used to make offerings of their own hair to their Goddess. Eventually they learned to preserve their braids by substituting the imitative loaf, which was called Berchisbrod or Perchisbrod, bread offered to the Goddess Berchta, or Perchta. The name of the braided Sabbath loaf among German Jews, Berches or Barches, was copied from this tradition.

Could it be that those nice braids that my wife makes when she bakes ḥallah really have their source in pagan goddess worship? The linguist Paul Wexler thinks that the original name was actually the German Holle which was
the name of a pagan Germanic goddess to whom braided bread was once given in offering. [The German] Holle was replaced at a later date-under the pressure of Judaization-by the [Hebrew] ḥallah, which bore formal and semantic similarity. (See his book The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews, pp. 68-69 and numerous other places in his writings.)

If so, we must protest this perversion of Judaism and introduction of pagan rites into our Shabbos festivities.

Yes, I am kidding. (Though given history, people will likely not read this far and assume I am speaking in all seriousness.)

What I wrote above wasn't made up. And it seems at the very least plausible that braided loaves for the pagan Germanic goddess Holle is the basis of both the name and form of the bread.

But some people are up in arms this week about shlissel challah, because of its similarity to hot cross buns. Perhaps. As I wrote in the past about this:
In the minds of the hamon am who practice this, there certainly are no such idolatrous intentions. Instead, they regard it as a holy segulah, and maybe associate all sorts of Torah-based justifications for the practice. So I would not condemn it as the worst thing in the universe.
My primary objection to shlissel challah -- besides of course poisoning yourself with lead leeching from the keys -- has to do with the adoption of the minhag by people for whom it was never a family minhag. As I wrote (same post):
What I find more problematic is what the widespread acceptance of this minhag means.

A) Initially, people's practice was more or less mimetic.
B) Then, people turned to texts and away from their mimetic traditions.
C) Then, with the advent of the Internet, each group's personal mimetic traditions become text (or become memes?) and become the expectation for the global Jewish community.
When you combine this chain-mail type of spread with the minhag's questionable background and somewhat negative messaging (of segulah-ism), there is what to oppose.

Anyway, it feels good to "oppose" something. It gives people something to do and something to talk about, heatedly. It is a fun way of channeling one's religious beliefs into a public statement.

Just realize that not just shlissel challah, but regular challah is well, can be subject to many of the same attacks.


vafsi ode said...

yes i have made the same point re: those that reject RSBY zohar authorship myth but accept the mosiac torah authorship myth

AK said...

If Paul Wexler were the originator of the pagan-Challah theory, that alone would strongly suggest that it's complete nonsense. (He's documented as being a dishonest self-promoter and he's keen on any support for his simultaneously outlandish and offensive "scholarship". Nonetheless, the theory predates him, though I've so far found (via google) no hint of a basis for a pagan custom involving braided bread for Holle. (The closest is the pretzel which isn't necessarily the same thing at all.)

AK said...

Regardless, for those genuinely concerned about keeping halacha even where it flies in the face of mimetic tradition, there is what to discuss independent of the contentiousness.


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